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John James Clark (1838–1915)

by David Saunders

This article was published:

John James Clark (1838-1915), architect, was born on 23 January 1838 at Liverpool, England, the second son of George Clark, farmer and tailor, and his wife Mary, née Unwin. He was educated at the Collegiate Institute, Liverpool. The parents and six children arrived at Melbourne as unassisted migrants in the Martin Luther on 10 March 1852. While some of the family were briefly digging at one of the goldfields, James (the name by which he was known) was immediately accepted at 14 as acting draftsman on the staff of the colonial architect. Less than six years later he was signing drawings for the New Treasury in Spring Street, was acknowledged as its designer and supervised its construction. He was earning £450 a year by 1855 and his income was the primary support for the family in those early years. From February 1858 he was away for nine months visiting England. In 1861 Clark became by examination lieutenant of engineers and was later promoted captain. He continued an active association with army affairs for most of his life.

Clark remained in government service until 1878, when he was among those retrenched in the Black Wednesday dismissals, as was his senior, William Wardell. In his earlier years of government employ he was permitted to associate with private practices, and worked at night with Smith and Pritchard (later acknowledging Pritchard as his prime instructor in architecture) and assisted Joseph Reed with several competitions. In that period he also competed alone and successfully for the Public Library, Sydney, and the Supreme Court, Auckland, New Zealand. In those twenty years under several colonial architects he must have been closely connected with the construction of many public buildings. Those associated particularly with his name through signed drawings or other evidence include: the Supreme Court, Geelong (now demolished); some part in the Insane Asylums at Kew, Beechworth and Ararat; the front block of the Royal Mint, Melbourne (1870); and the completion of the Melbourne Customs House (1876). That palatial residence, Government House, Melbourne, was largely done by Clark, under Wardell's supervision, according to Clark's evidence before the 1873 commission on the Public Works Department. In 1865 he married Mary Taylor Watmuff (b.1845, Manchester); their only child, Edward James, was born in 1868; Mary died in 1871 after several illnesses and a stillbirth.

After his dismissal Clark acted for the Public Works Department as supervising architect at the Law Courts, and in 1880 began a private practice in Collins Street, Melbourne. In December 1881 he moved to Sydney to join his brother George, an engineer. In the next two years, as Clark Bros, they won prizes in seven competitions, among them a second prize for Queensland State Offices. In August 1883 James was appointed colonial architect for Queensland, and proceeded with the Treasury Building, Brisbane. In January 1884 he gained first prize for his design for Brisbane Town Hall, though it was neither built then nor to his design. In 1885 he resigned from government service. He also won a competition for the Masonic Hall, Brisbane, and in December 1886 was elected grand master of the lodge. He continued private practice in Brisbane until 1889 and then took his 21-year-old son for a nine months tour of America and Europe.

Returning to Brisbane in 1891 he probably found commissions difficult to obtain, for he moved to Sydney and then to Perth to act for the Western Australian Works Department as architect for hospitals and asylums. His son meanwhile borrowed money from an aunt and returned to England to employment with a London firm. In 1896 father and son rejoined in Perth, formed a partnership and soon succeeded in several competitions: for extensions to Fremantle Town Hall (1897); for St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth (1897); and for the Children's Hospital, Perth (1898). In 1899 they returned to Brisbane to commissions for the Queensland railways, including the tower of Central Station, Brisbane, and the stations at Maryborough and Townsville (1901). They also succeeded in more competitions, such as the Newcastle Hospital, New South Wales (1899). In June 1902 they moved again to Melbourne to begin work on the Melbourne City Baths, having won a competition for its design in May.

Clark's later work included: the Ballarat offices of the National Mutual Life Assurance Association (competition, 1904); the Maitland Hospital, New South Wales (1903-05); the Women's Refuge (1907) and extensions to the Women's Hospital (1907-17) both in Carlton, Melbourne; the Auckland Town Hall, New Zealand (competition, 1907); and the new Melbourne Hospital, Lonsdale Street (begun in 1912 after a second prize awarded in 1905). Clark left in August 1908 to visit hospitals in the United States and England and returned in February 1909. He died at St Kilda on 25 June 1915.

His obituary credited him with having won prizes in thirty-eight competitions out of forty-seven he entered, twenty-four of them firsts. His skill as a draftsman carried over effectively into his landscape sketches. Their style displays something of Abram-Louis Buvelot, from whom he took lessons in Melbourne from 1868. Some of his sketches are in the National Gallery, Victoria; others, and water-colour paintings, are held by grandsons. His sketching trips to Macedon, the You Yangs and the Dandenongs, and his army activities seem to have been the sole diversions from a consuming devotion to architectural work. He became a member of the Victorian Institute of Architects in 1860, served on its council in 1907 and as its vice-president in 1908 and 1910-11.

His career was spectacular in several ways. His twenty years in public service and thirty-four in private practice produced far more work, especially more prize-winning work, than most of his contemporaries, while in addition he made five intercolonial moves and travelled overseas three times. One unusual aspect of his practice for that period was his concentration on public and medical buildings. There seems to have been neither church nor industrial work in the practice; his family associations with the Church of England seem to have lapsed, and his son had no religious affiliation. He chose never to create a large office, preferring to work long hours alone, with his son or with occasional help from others.

The name of J. J. Clark is lastingly associated with high architectural quality through the Melbourne Treasury, his first work. By means of its successful form, scale and detail, and probably also because of its splendid location on a stepped platform at the head of tree-lined Collins Street, it has won affection from each generation. It is doubtful whether any of his subsequent designs equalled its excellence of elevation, though the Royal Mint and Customs House bear comparison. The Brisbane Treasury, with its repetition of arcades over four storeys of a façade broken outwards six times with protruding bays, is one of those attempts to adapt Roman elements to modern multi-storey needs in which the Victorian era rarely succeeded. The use of red brick is important in most of his later works, especially those designed after his son joined him, though James is thought to have retained the design lead in the partnership. The mood was usually still Italianate, though sometimes otherwise, for example, in the competition designs for the Children's Hospital, Perth, and the Newcastle Hospital, where Tudor and Elizabethan elements are to be seen. The engineering approach to the use of brickwork which is to be found in the Maitland Hospital, the Melbourne City Baths and the Melbourne Hospital gives a less eclectic, more 'modern' result. The sheer brick walls, slightly banded, contrasting with strong modelling or outlining of arches and piers where they occur, provide a purposeful air, solid and yet appropriately suggestive of technical buildings.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Journal, 13 (1915)
  • Clark memorial number, Building (Sydney), 20 (1917)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 June 1915
  • K. L. Dynan, John James Clark (University of Melbourne Architecture Library, 1962)
  • J. J. and E. J. Clark, journals and diaries (privately held).

Citation details

David Saunders, 'Clark, John James (1838–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Clark, n.d.

John Clark, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 73491 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


23 January, 1838
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


25 June, 1915 (aged 77)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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